In 2016 January, I was developing Fantômas: Revenge of the Image at the CalArts Center for New Performance (CNP). This unique theatrical experiment is based on a massive audience unit on wheels—not unlike a moving camera obscura—that transports the audience through a landscape of animated projection as the theatrical environment for the actors.
At the same time, Stan Lai, the celebrated Chinese writer and director, was leading a developmental workshop of Nightwalk in a Chinese Garden, a CNP collaboration with the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens, using their extraordinary Chinese garden, Liu Fang Yuan 流芳園(Garden of Flowing Fragrance) as the location for a site specific theatrical experience—with audience walking through the majestic garden while encountering orchestrated dramatic episodes.
During his residency Stan visited our Fantômas rehearsal. We had just constructed the “camera box” and were working on the interaction of the actors with the animated media content and the moving unit. Stan was struck by the radical possibility of this unusual theatrical device. He immediately invited it to have its world premiere at the Wuzhen Theatre Festival—an extraordinary festival that Stan had co-founded in China. This invitation began a journey that had unexpected and startling impacts on the development of Fantômas: Revenge of the Image and signals a new possibility (paradigm) in world festival culture—one that invests significantly in the development and production of new work in addition to the familiar presentation of preexisting pieces.
The Wuzhen Theatre Festival is rapidly becoming one of the most singular festival experiences in the world. Of course, this is due in large measure to its beautiful setting in the “Water Town” of Wuzhen. But it’s unique identity among global theatre festivals is more significantly tied to the vision and programing of its founders—Chen Xianghong (visionary urban planner), Huang Lei (celebrated actor), Stan Lai (acclaimed writer/director), and Meng Jinghui (experimental director/auteur). Indeed, the sustained personal investment of these founding artists is what distinguishes the Wuzhen Festival Experience from scores of other theatre celebrations.
Having experienced and presented work at Edinburgh, Avignon, Adelaide, and many others, the comparatively small scale of the Wuzhen festival and the participation of the founding artistic leadership in every aspect of the festival experience are what create the absolutely extraordinary environment in Wuzhen—exceptional among world festivals. Moreover, the dedication to the development of contemporary Chinese theatre artists in the context of an international festival of superior work is a vital component of the mission of this festival and its founders.
Wuzhen is one of China’s most enchanting destinations. A 1,300-year-old water town on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River; it has been stunningly restored to its former splendor. Located on the Hangzhou-Jiaxing-Huzhou Plain in northern Zhejiang Province, it is at the center of the golden triangle consisting of Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Suzhou.
The ancient Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal flows through the town—creating a captivating rhythm of bridges, walkways, and water. Since its founding in 872 AD, Wuzhen’s traditional buildings remain beautifully intact today. Given the unique combination of modern facilities and traditional culture, it is the perfect environment for the presentation, development, and production of contemporary theatre.
About the Festival
A grand celebration of the art of performance, the Wuzhen Theatre Festival consists of various inter-related parts: the Invited Productions, the Young Theatre Artist’s Competition, the Outdoor Carnival, and the Wuzhen Dialogues. The entire town of Wuzhen is transformed into a splendid stage.
Of course, there is an abundance of works from major companies throughout the world. This year’s festival, programmed by Artistic Director Tian Qinxin, organized loosely around the theme “luminosity,” included the Schaubühne Theatre in Berlin, The Vakhtangov Theatre in Moscow, Vilnius City Theatre, Armazém Theatre of Brazil, among many other international groups and scores of Chinese theatre companies.
The Young Theatre Artist's Competition is a major component of the festival, hosting emerging theatre artists from around China in a competition with significant funding and cash awards. The array of works presented displayed impressive energy, skill, and dedication. Moreover, this primary focus on the development of emerging talent is making the Wuzhen Festival into a destination for young artists around China and an incubator for the leading theatre makers of the future.
Moreover, there are myriad forums for workshops and discourse. The Wuzhen Dialogues, along with the Theatre Forums, offer outstanding opportunities for practitioners and laymen alike to engage in a vital exchange with Chinese and international theatre artists. The energy and importance of these events conducted in tandem with the presentation program is central to the festival—rather than a tangential component of a presentation agenda. The Wuzhen Festival is laser-focused on the development of performance in China and on expanding the boundaries of theatre discourse, theory, and practice.
By cultivating new talent for the theatre and by enhancing global cultural exchange, the Wuzhen Theatre Festival plays an instrumental role in the cultural development and diversity of performance in China. The local and the global are in constant dialogue.
Fantômas—Revenge of the Image is a radical exploration of performance space and spectatorship at the intersection of film, theatre, and physical sensation. Based on Fantômas, the fictional phantom bandit and figure of unbounded criminality from French serial literature and film, Fantômas—Revenge of the Image engages urban terrorism as an enduring facet of the contemporary landscape. Through the creation of an innovative mobile, enclosed audience unit (designed by Tony Award winner Chris Barreca and Drew Foster), the production investigates the close relationship between sensation, violence, and entertainment in contemporary visual culture.
Throughout the production, the audience unit moves through space like a camera dolly and the audience, seated inside, views the performance through the lens-like aperture. The framing of the aperture and movement of the rolling unit intensify and focus viewers’ experience.
Fantômas was developed over many years and is a challenging piece to rehearse. The interaction of the “camera box” movement, animated video from multiple projectors, and the actors’ choreography create a dizzying level of complexity for both rehearsal and performance. Because there is no “backstage” (the movement of the box making offstage a constantly shifting proposition!) the running of the show is a stage management nightmare, involving the continual shifting of props, crew, and performers. No aspect of the running of the show is static. As one can imagine, communication among all the participants is crucial for the success of the piece.
Fantômas in Wuzhen
Becoming the development partner of an international world premiere marked new territory for the Wuzhen Festival and created a singular landscape for us to advance our work. This opportunity enabled us to evolve the work in ways that we could not have foreseen—and in ways that could not have occurred in other environments. The commitment and dedication of the Wuzhen team (from artistic leadership through stage crew) was unparalleled in my experience. This dedication enabled us to make critical steps in the dramaturgical evolution of the work and to chart a path for future incarnations. This would have been impossible without the development experience in Wuzhen and signals an augmented mission for theatre festivals—one that assists artists in the development and production of work, that encourages risk taking and experimentation, and that is focused on discourse and cross-cultural exchange.
Creating the first public performances in Wuzhen offered us a series of challenges that greatly enhanced the depth and promise of the work—but were almost entirely unanticipated at the start of this collaboration. Fantômas is designed to have the entire text spoken by a single actor on microphone, riding unseen on the camera box. She provides the voiceover of Tom Gunning’s collaged text that accompanies the visual/dramatic experience created by the actors—in concert with the multiple technical elements. The visual is so important to the piece that we could not promise a full experience if the audience had to read supertitles. Indeed, the density of text in some moments would have made this prohibitive. No—Fantômas is a pure visual/acoustic experience.
But, of course, when we considered the ramifications of performing the piece in China we had to confront the fact that alternating English and Mandarin performances would segregate our audiences in ways that were unacceptable. In response, we devised a strategy that wove both languages into a poetic whole—with two speakers working in tandem to deliver the text. The powerful interaction of the English and Mandarin was one of the great discoveries of this process—enhancing the mystery of the dramatic landscape and the beauty of the acoustic environment. Because of this I believe that the piece created in Wuzhen is truly specific to that cultural location. It would mean something fundamentally different in another cultural environment. Our work was not created and then transported hermetically to another culture. No, we discovered how it could interact with and be permeable to the impulses and interpretations of another cultural environment.
Moreover, the textual dramaturgy had to alter considerably because we had now more than doubled the amount of text (in general, we discovered that Mandarin took somewhat longer to speak). This then required significant reediting of the text in order to balance the amount of spoken text to image and action. Fundamentally, this meant creating another text with a significantly different dramaturgy.
Fantômas is a very mysterious piece. Steeped profoundly in Western visual, literary, and political traditions, Fantômas is in some way unknowable—this is a defining characteristic. However, our experience in China, with an astute Chinese audience, assisted us in separating the mysterious from the merely opaque. They also helped us to recognize areas of emotionality and evocation that we had not fully acknowledged. Exposure of this work to an entirely different cultural and linguistic context allowed us to discover and expand latent content that we had only been vaguely aware of. This charts the way for future substantive changes to the content of the piece.
Site Specific and…
We did not anticipate how much the character of the selected space would impact every aspect of the theatrical experience—even after years of development. The space in Wuzhen was larger than we had been working in and was more industrial in character (being a convention and exhibition space). Needless to say, this dramatically impacted the feeling of the action and the ambiance of the whole experience in ways that were startling. We can anticipate a variety of different venues for this work—but because of our experience in Wuzhen we now know undeniably that the nature of those spaces will significantly impact the content of the piece. The space is not a tabula rasa upon which our work is projected. The meaning of the work changes with the venue.
Moreover, we discovered the crucial difference—both visually and dramaturgically that occurs with just miniscule adjustments to the position of the box. Again, this obvious point impressed itself upon us—every movement of the box is a redesign of the theatre, not just the scene.
Communication, Communication, Communication
We went to China with a team of over twenty-five—including five Mandarin speakers who were trained at CalArts. The Chinese production team was roughly the same size—not including the box construction crew. The team in Wuzhen was superb. Indeed, one of the most satisfying features of our work in Wuzhen was to see this large group from disparate backgrounds and language evolve into a seamless theatrical community—all working in concert to create an exceedingly complex performance.
That being said, every day was an exercise in cultural diplomacy—a continual challenge to our assumptions of what is appropriate and effective process and interaction. This space between our cultures was navigated daily by the whole CalArts/Wuzhen team and, of course, was extremely personal. This intimate encounter is the true arena of cultural diplomacy—the space of personal interface, with its moment to moment awkwardness, joy, and confusion.